The Four R's

Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic & Real Estate

(page 2 of 3)

From San Francisco, with love (and money)
Facing this kind of math, an increasing number of families with school-age children are moving to southern Marin, pushing up kindergarten enrollment in several high-scoring school districts. Many of these new Marinites are former San Franciscans.

Tom Dreyer, an agent in Pacific Union’s Greenbrae office, describes the demographic transition. “There’s a stream of young graduates coming out of local universities,” he says. “They end up living in the Marina or maybe Cole Valley, depending on how bohemian they want to be. Then they get married and they’re looking at children coming up.”

That’s when they become frustrated, either with San Francisco’s school lottery system or the city’s lack of kid-friendly housing.

“Say you have two kids of school age and you’re in the city,” says Dreyer. “Your options there are grim because of the school lottery. It would cost about $44,000 to keep them in private schools in San Francisco. That’s a sound argument to bite the bullet and pay more than you would in other communities for the better school district.”

Sometimes, says Dreyer, he’ll see “a dozen or more of these young couples” at open houses, especially in places such as Sycamore Park in Mill Valley, Belveron in Tiburon and McAlister Avenue in Kentfield. Beyond the good schools, these neighborhoods meet the family checklist: flat streets (for strollers), big backyards (not vertigo-inducing decks) and walk-to parks (for playdates).

Payton Stiewe, an agent with Sotheby’s International Real Estate in San Francisco, sees a direct link between the city’s school lottery and demand for Marin housing. “In March,” he says, “when the letters were mailed out to the parents in San Francisco about the school they applied to—whether they got accepted or not—that weekend we got a huge spike in people looking in Marin for houses.”

Moreover, says Stiewe, who lives in Mill Valley, family buyers just can’t find what they need in San Francisco. On the lower end, he says, “for a million you don’t get anything anymore in the city that is decent.” On the higher end, “it’s really, really hard to find a home in San Francisco that can accommodate three kids, having four bedrooms on one level.”

Molly Williams once covered Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal and now is a full-time Mill Valley mom of four. She and her husband, Steve Sell, a health care executive who also sits on the Mill Valley school board, are poster parents for the San-Francisco-in-my-rearview movement.

“We were living in the city in ’98 and ’99 and started looking at the financials of buying a house,” says Williams. “The question was, if you buy a house in the city are you going to pay for private schools vs. going to a better school district where you pay a premium?”

Sell, who ran unopposed for his four-year, unpaid school board position in 2005, picks up the story: “We were a pretty typical case study. Our daughter was two. We were pregnant with our first son (two more followed). Mill Valley had this great combination of proximity to the city and strong, local neighborhood schools. It really has this small- town community feeling.”

Katheryn Baldwin made a similar journey, although entirely within Marin County. In 2002, Baldwin and her husband, who runs a media production services company, were living in Novato with their two children. They wanted to move south and school quality was critical. Their son was attending preschool at Marin Primary in Larkspur, where annual tuition hovers around $20,000.

Baldwin first looked at test scores, then houses. She found a place she loved in San Rafael. “The house was larger, new, had a pool and all sorts of great things,” she says. She thought the address was in “a decent school district­—not the top but they do pretty well.” But, says Baldwin, “when I found it was in a different district, I dumped the house immediately.”

Baldwin finally settled in Greenbrae, about two blocks from the Kentfield border, close enough for her son and daughter to attend Bacich Elementary School in the highly rated Kentfield district.

Coincidentally, Baldwin ended up working for the district. As director of development she helps the all-volunteer Kentfield Schools Foundation raise money to plug gaps in school funding. Last year, the foundation contributed more than $1 million, 10 percent of the budget.

What makes local schools so good
When parents and administrators explain why the schools in Kentfield, Tiburon, Mill Valley and similar towns are so good, almost uniformly their top two reasons are parental involvement and community financial support.

The latter is exhibited in the millions of dollars given each year by parents and nonparents alike to the many nonprofit Marin school foundations formed in the wake of the 1978 property-tax-slashing initiative Proposition 13, which gutted public school funding. This money pays for arts, music and other nonacademic education that administrators say would likely not be possible without it.

Perhaps the best known of these foundations is Kiddo!, made famous as much by its seemingly ubiquitous bright red exclamation point as its funding for 100 percent of the arts programs in Mill Valley’s six public schools (see story, page 36).

RoseAnn Frank, a former Wall Street vice president who now lives in Strawberry, with one son at Tam High and another at Mill Valley Middle School, cochairs Kiddo!’s annual fundraising campaign.

Frank says the money from Kiddo! makes the Mill Valley schools less one-dimensional than schools—like the one her sons attended in Manhattan Beach — that focus almost exclusively on testing. When she moved to Marin four years ago, she says, “I called the school district and I liked the foundation’s focus on the arts. I did want good test scores because I am academically oriented, but I love the arts. Mill Valley is more well-rounded. I have two kids who are kind of different and they needed both.”

Mimi Ogden, the outgoing PTA president at the Reed Union School District in Tiburon and Belvedere, says that when she, her husband and their two children moved to Marin in 1998 from Chicago, they “specifically purchased in Tiburon for the schools.”

Besides high test scores she was also drawn to the cultural and Spanish language classes in Reed Union’s three schools, supported by the Foundation for Reed Schools.

“All schools should have art and music and PE and all those things that were taken away,” Ogden says. “Unfortunately, they don’t. It was really important to my husband and me that our children were in a school that had those. We figured that depending on where we moved, we could either pay for it in the house or we could pay for it in private schooling.”

Parents are a prime source of funding for the foundations, although donations are not mandatory. The Foundation for Reed Schools tells parents it provides $1,100 worth of additional education per child and “suggests” a contribution of that amount. Kiddo! asks for $600 per student; the Kentfield Schools Foundation seeks $825. All are a bargain compared to private school tuition.

Broader community support for local schools is evident on every Marin County property tax bill. Voters from Nicasio to Mill Valley have approved more than half a billion dollars in education bonds since 1994 (plus $250 million more for the College of Marin). In addition, nearly every local city has a flat parcel tax targeted for schools. This means, for example, that the owner of the median-priced $1 million home in Mill Valley pays at least $1,200 more a year in taxes dedicated to schools.

That type of self-taxation indicates a high level of grassroots support for schools, says Ogden. “That doesn’t happen everywhere,” she adds. “It’s a critical part of a successful community and this community understands that.”